SmartWithFood: where smart food shopping meets the power of APIs
Market evolutions and challenges pave the way for game-changing solutions, powered by innovative minds and technology. A challenge that ‘SmartWithFood’ happily accepted. Together with Archers, SmartWithFood built a state-of-the-art and integrated platform to make a difference for retailers and e-commerce platforms worldwide.
Today’s food retail environment is challenging from almost any perspective. New retailers are popping up every minute, unique product selections or price promotions are not going to cut it anymore to win over new clients and new platforms and technologies are disrupting the market at tremendous rates. And as if this isn’t challenging enough, the industry is also confronted with rapidly changing user behavior. Online food shopping is booming all over the world and consumers are transforming into value-driven shoppers that prefer to buy from companies that align with their own personal values.
Consumers expect nothing less than value, availability and convenience when shopping for food – in-store and online. In other words, to stand out as a retailer or an e-commerce platform in today’s highly competitive market, offering customers a highly personalized and unique shopping experience is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s an absolute must to survive. Food retailers and e-commerce platforms must be on top of their game in all business facets to stay competitive and keep their customers happy.
A game-changing intelligent food platform
Market evolutions and challenges pave the way for game-changing solutions, powered by innovative minds and technology. A challenge the Colruyt Group happily accepted by launching ‘SmartWithFood'.
SmartWithFood is an integrated food and health SaaS platform built to empower retailers and e-commerce platforms in today’s fast-paced retail environment. To let them do more with less. “By providing them with a platform that seamlessly integrates intelligent food technology into their own digital landscape, we support them in offering their customers the best possible shopping experience, staying ahead of the competition and excelling in their omnichannel strategy”, Filip Champagne, Head of Business Development at SmartWithFood, kicks off. Together with Archers, SmartWithFood built a state-of-the-art and integrated platform to make a difference for retailers and e-commerce platforms worldwide.
A wide range of features and tools to enforce customer engagement and streamline operations is incorporated within the platform. “For example, to improve the overall food shopping experience, customers are provided with tailored recommendations and offers based on their preferences and purchase history. Which automatically results in increased sales and customer loyalty”, Filip adds. “In addition, SmartWithFood provides retailers with real-time insights and analytics to gain insights in their operations and business processes. Which allows them to increase their overall efficiency.”
Born within the Colruyt Group ecosystem, food retail is simply woven into the DNA of the platform. “It’s an inherent part of our genes”, Filip explains, “we know the food retailers’ world and the complex challenges they’re facing today like no other. In addition, we possess a lot of scientific data and in-depth knowledge about food-related topics to provide the platform with a solid data foundation.”
“The performance requirements for the platform are very high”, Andries Inze, CTO at SmartWithFood, clarifies. “Big datasets need to be queried in an efficient and reliable way and secure data collection and processing needs to be ensured at all times. Besides, the platform needs to be able to handle data spikes (for example during the holidays) and real time data collection. Therefore, the set-up of a robust, scalable, secure and future-proof backbone of the platform was an absolute must. That’s why we called on the expertise of the Archers Integration Architects.”
The power of strong partnerships
SmartWithFood also shares a strong partnership with Microsoft. As a co-sell ready partner, the platform is based on the power of the commercial Azure marketplace. “The Microsoft Azure platform offers us the necessary autonomy and stability to further scale the platform”, Andries explains. “To ensure a future-proof cloud architecture, we entered into dialogue with Microsoft experts multiple times.” Andries ads.
SmartWithFood is also part of the TCS COIN ecosystem. The TCS Co-Innovation Network (COIN)™ is an open innovation ecosystem created to connect industry leaders, analysts, scholars and start-ups. By combining insights from stakeholders with primary and secondary research, TCS COIN™ has the power to reshape the technology landscape and scientifically forecast trends that could be at the helm of the next wave of disruption.
The technological foundation of SmartWithFood
SmartWithFood captures, bundles, and exposes data to its users. A process powered by business APIs and data graphs:
- Business APIs which operate as a business channel to enable the integration of smart digital business services into webshops, digital store devices, etc., without the need for extensive back-office maintenance (product updates, alternative products, …).
- Data graphs which can contain and store massive amounts of food and user data.
Data capturing and processing
A personalized and seamless online experience is only possible with massive amounts of data and strong data relationships. Therefore, the platform enriches product data with immense amounts of specialized food attributes such as food preferences, scoring, nutritional values, eco-footprints etc. These are obtained from multiple sources like EuroFir, USDA, universities... and SmartWithFood’s in-house digital dieticians. This data is then structured within data graphs. The technology behind those graphs makes it possible to process high-volume data and build relations between the different components. Product information is enriched with metadata, enforcing smart link-building between products and the ability to process intelligent customer questions such as ‘give me an alternative for a certain product’ or ‘I only want to see gluten free options’. This data is stored in a hyper performant data structure system.
To keep on feeding the data and grow the intelligence of the platform, Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) models are incorporated within the data graphs. Automated machine learning supports the process of data enrichments as databases are being analyzed and added constantly. The scientifically endorsed data graph is based on NLP and is language agnostic. Actual user data is used to make the system smarter. As a result, the more retailers and e-commerce platforms work with the platform, the smarter the system becomes.
Data exposure through APIs
“In the first stage of the platform, data was only exposed towards internal Colruyt brands. Today, we aim to onboard retailers and e-commerce platforms all over the world, which caused a shift in the data disclosure requirements”, Andries explains.
Initially, GraphQL services were used to ingest and expose the data. However, this required a very technical and complex process. Also the overall performance proved to be a thorny issue. As the system could not be cached, integrations needed to be written by the users themselves and a complex interface between the backend and frontend was used to capture the data. As a result, platform users needed deep technical knowledge of the platform to conduct data queries. “We aim to let users work independently with the platform, regardless of their technical knowledge. Therefore, a technological shift was necessary” according to Andries.
For this reason, a shift towards REST APIs was made. That’s where Archers entered the game. “The biggest difference between GraphQL and REST is the way data is sent to the user”, Joost, Integration Architect at Archers, explains. “The SmartWithFood APIs act as a business channel for partner engagement and thus require efficient and reliable data exposure.”
“The food industry is an environment where lots of sensitive data is processed”, Andries adds. “This made a validated framework for governance, platform and organization an absolute necessity to enable external data exposure. Archers acted as a strategic and technical advisor for the SmartWithFood IT-department throughout the entire process.”
Two kinds of APIs are stored within the SmartWithFood platform:
- innovation APIs - consumed by business partners and platform users offering new and innovative ways of interacting with SmartWithFood
- business APIs - used by business partners, retailer-branded websites to extract data and platform users from SmartWithFood
The Innovation- and Business APIs were in-depth examined in the light of the Archers API Program as discussed below.
To align the API Management program with the business strategy of unburdening retailers and e-commerce providers, a vision and strategy for the deployment of the APIs was elaborated. “This enabled us to define a tailored connectivity strategy, on which the operation of the other pillars is based”, Joost explains, “while ensuring that decisions made during the program bring added value to both business and IT.”
API governance focuses on the documentation and processes required to develop quality APIs while supporting the integration architecture. The documentation part consists of the required deliverables and where their creation and validation fit in the governance process. Processes manage the timing and flow of the activities throughout the project. This way, high-quality API development in a controlled manner is assured at any time during their lifecycle.
An API lifecycle consists of three primary milestones: established design, quality assurance and stability assurance. Due to the different purposes and nature of the APIs, they operate within different life cycles. For example:
· speed of adopting change: quick APIs (innovation) vs long-term stable APIs (business)
· acceptance of change: fluid (innovation) vs solid (business)
Therefore, the idea is to split up the governance in two different processes:
· The API Governance Process supports the realization of both sets of APIs.
· The API Release Process supports the publication of the Business APIs.
By separating both processes, the development of new API features could still be created and tested in terms of quality and stability.
The SmartWithFood API portal is a website for its users where all the information about the APIs is gathered. Therefore, selecting a UX-friendly portal with the right look and feel that offers maximum customisation options to its users was of major importance.
“We started with a questionnaire that captured the business requirements of the API management portal. Different vendors were compared and the ones that fitted the requirements were extensively investigated”, Joost explains. Redocly came out as a clear winner, thanks to its:
· advanced and user-oriented look and feel
· capabilities as a marketplace for APIs
· possibilities to customize branding
· story telling options around the published APIs
“Archers analyzed many different vendors with a fresh and objective perspective and captured the internal visions within the organization. Without ever losing sight of the wider picture and the challenging context in which retailers and e-commerce platforms operate today”, according to Andries. “As a result, everybody was quickly on the same page about the best possible match for our organization.”
To ensure optimal delivery and deployment of the different APIs, a profound understanding of the internal organizational structure of SmartWithFood was vital.
“We mapped out the existing roles within SmartWithFood and defined new roles which are needed to support the entire API delivery process - from design over implementation to testing. By composing the ideal API Development team in line with the actual situation, SmartWithFood obtained profound insights in the strengths and weaknesses of their current team. This way, we were able to provide the right training and coaching”, Joost clarifies.
Design and realization
While developing the APIs, the SmartWithFood team was coached by Archers to ensure the development of quality, logical and consistent APIs with a uniform user experience. A set of standards and guidelines was delivered which established clear rules around interfaces.
Next Steps and future plans
Today, the APIs are ready to move into the testing phase. During this stage, Archers will again take on the role as an advisor while providing hands-on API testing support.
“Together with Archers, we established a strong foundation of the platform. This offers us a strong and solid base to further onboard new customers. We’re looking forward to lifting the platform to the next level and further growing the maturity of the platform”, Andries concludes.
“By streamlining processes and standardizing guidelines together with seasoned API and integration experts, we seamlessly moved out of the start-up phase into the stabilization phase. Thanks to Archers, we’re totally ready to further explore the international market and lift e-commerce platforms and food retailers to the next level!”
“I really loved working on this project”, Joost adds. “Building partner APIs with partner engagement and monetization as the primary goals, was a very interesting challenge. In addition, SmartWithFood is a young company so there were no limitations in terms of processes or governance. We were able to really move forward and make an impact. I got so much appreciation for my work, allowing me to look back at an amazing collaboration!”